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Monthly Archives: March 2018

What do you do when you realize that greatness is great?  §

Writing has been tougher and tougher for me as of late. Then, this afternoon, I suddenly had this brainstorm—perhaps it was time to record some audio diary material. So I started without having any particular direction in mind.

I then proceeded to record three hours of audio, alone, just me in a room talking at and with myself. Is this a sign of mental health or of its distinct lack in my life? Hard to say.

— § —

Since earning my Ph.D., continuing to work in the wider world, and being divorced, my opinion of the academic world has continued to darken.

I don’t think this darkening matches the outlook held by my ex-wife that the life of the mind is pointless, elitist, and essentially a scam. I also don’t think it has much to do with sour grapes at not having achieved a long-term academic career, though anyone who choses to think that about me would certainly be justified in doing so.

Rather, I think it’s about the substance and biases of the humanities and social sciences academy as I watch them continue to evolve. Maybe I was just naive as a Ph.D. student and these tendencies have been there all along. Maybe things really are worse now than they used to be. Maybe I’m just seeing a different, filtered view now that I’m on the outside looking in.

More and more, however, I have this sad feeling that while the academy is something that ought to matter and that could matter and that should matter, in fact it simply doesn’t matter. It chooses not to, or rather, most of its people choose not to.

It seems to be a space of petty concerns, petty people, and largely petty consequences—a place where ensuring that white people stop eating sushi and nobody has to be subjected to small chairs is seen as far more important than ensuring that billions of people around the world have enough to eat, and in which the former is seen as the obvious path ahead for the achievement of the latter.

In short, it’s no wonder that “greats” rarely seem to come from or to happen in the academy any longer, given its anti-greatness ethos (apropos of my last post).

— § —

I don’t know whether this is all here or there except to say that I continue to look for a space in the world where greatness is valued as such, not as an instrument whose exercise leads toward profitability, not as a political cudgel, and not as a target for deconstruction, but because great is great.

The fact that nearly everyone in modern society and in the academy, and certainly everyone on the left will find the preceeding paragraph to be (a) racist, (b) sexist, (c) colonialist, (d) capitalist, (e) microagressive, (f) macroaggressive, (g) naive, (h) wrongheaded, (i) unjust, (j) prejudicial, (k) discriminatory, (l) sactionable, (m) reprehensible, (n) privileged, (o) white, (p) male, (q) hetero, (r) cis, (s) anacrhonistic, (t) reactionary, (u) counterproductive, (v) embarrassing, (w) uninformed, (x) indefensible, (y) dismissible, and (z) beneath someone like myself that holds a Ph.D. from a major private university is why I have removed myself from both the academy and the left.

I haven’t yet removed myself from society, as that isn’t properly an option. The question then becomes—where do I go from here? How do I take what I am feeling and thinking about all of this and turn it into some beneficial means (not end, as pursuing ends in things human generally leads to evil, as all of human history demonstrates; it is good means, not good ends that edify us; the pursuit of good ends simply results, history tells us, in oppression and murder).

— § —

Still wandering in the wilderness, clearly.

Jesus and Stalin were not figures of speech. Neither are Trump or Pope Francis.  §

Here’s the thing. Nobody writes anything grand any longer. Or, nobody who gets to be taken seriously by the cultural elites writes anything grand any longer.

Nothing that uses big words.
Nothing that is confident.
Nothing that is self-assured or that makes strong positive claims.
Nothing that refers to any of what were once considered life’s certainties—good, evil, birth, death.

Instead, everyone just be jaded, everyone must self-depricatingly introduce themselves a as a common fraud and then either implicitly or explicitly signal that they are writing, with self-awareness, in the grand tradition of frauds.

— § —

In a similar vein, nobody (who is to be taken seriously) does or tries to do anything grand.

But we’ll get back to this in a moment. Let’s start with the writing, because it provides for a nice on-ramp to the problem.

— § —

This was getting rolling when I was first in college.

I remember hearing in various and sundry classes that nobody would be taken seriously any longer for discussing morality—good and evil as things—because such writing was “anachronistic” on its face; that you couldn’t use terms like “life” or “death” in class or in your work because this made you seem silly; that everyone recognized it when someone was trying to “sound like Shakespeare” or “come off as an intellectual” and that this was in fact deeply embarrassing because of course both Shakespeare and intellectuals had already come and gone and anyone that had the gall to implicitly echo their methods and purposes was only too evidently asking to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with giants that had long since gone from the earth, never to return.

My parents thought this was because I went to a liberal state university instead of the private religious university they’d attended. But that’s not the case; after that, I attended two private universities for graduate work and taught in a mix of state universities, privates, and community colleges for nearly a decade. This kind of thinking was suffused throughout the academy, and indeed throughout society as a whole already twenty years ago.

But then it got more extreme. It wasn’t just that you were a judged fraud by using proper English in a non-self-effacing way and referencing good and evil and happiness and sadness, a fraud of obviously deep impoverishment when stood next to history’s greats, oh no—it was far more than that.

By the time I was halfway through my Ph.D. somehow it had become that they were all frauds. Every last one of them, from Marx and Nietzsche back to Plato and Socrates. Bunch of fucking frauds, an oppressive elite who had hoodwinked everyone into believing that there was something more to life than dominating others. The basic and most embarrassing problem with history was that the plebes had been so incredibly naive—dare we even say “stupid”—for so long, taken in by this easy grab at free power and free money, made all the more shameless and embarrassing at once by the fact that these dudes already had more than their fair share by being white and male.

Foucault and a few others showed us the truth—it’s noogies all the way down—and now we realize that to be “woke” (though this term as such only recently enters the lexicon, the concept has been around for some time) we have to know that everyone else knows that we know that everyone else knows… … … insert self-effacing, jaded, cop-out from life here that that basically disavows any and all attempts to do anything worthwhile, lest anyone thinks that’s what anyone else is trying to do.

In short, to be taken seriously, the thing that you must first do is demonstrate in some way, clearly and explicitly, that you are in no way serious, that you understand seriousness to be impossible, and that you have already chanted thrice today the mantra that none of the claimed “greats” were ever serious either, and—to quote from the lexicon of neo-unserious-ungreats—”we won’t get fooled again.”

— § —

The way I read things, a lot of the bewilderment at how things are playing out in western civilization right now is a lack of any capacity to believe in greatness. This is the source of the bewilderment about Jordan Peterson, Bernie Sanders, Trump, ISIS, Elon Musk, etc.

Note that I don’t mean “good” in the moral sense when I use the term “great” here; what I mean instead is the dictionary definition, i.e. “notably large in size; of a kind characterized by relative largeness; remarkable in magnitude, degree, or effectiveness; chief or preeminent over others; long continued; remarkably skilled; marked by enthusiasm,” etc.

All of these figures that I named above and more are notable precisely because they’re not playing by the unserious, hip-to-the-game, I-know-that-you-know post-Foucaultian rules of mutual self-effacement. They do not start out with implicit or explicit disclaimers along the lines of, “I am unserious and unspecial and will demonstrate that shortly, I freely admit and assert that nothing can be known because nothing is knowable, that all things are ultimately equal and subject to debate amongst factions, and that those in more naive times understood to be history’s greats were, in fact, charlatans and street performers engaged in mounting little animated tableaux for embarrassingly credulous crowds, so with that out of the way, now that you know that I know and I know that you know, I’ll proceed to indignantly prevaricate apologetically in the general direction of my preferences, with as much passive-aggressive skill as I can muster.”

No, they go for the jugular. They stand up and take what they believe to be theirs, not by hipsterism, irony, and elitist in-crowdism, but by attempts at sheer moral, intellectual, or physical force.

The problem with the neo-Foucaultians has always been that underneath it all, the belief that if everything was power, yet all of this power was by happenstance and accident of birth and a matter of insider trading, then in fact the deeper historical truth was that nothing was power, we all share equally in power or in no-power and it’s all just a matter of the game.

These days, anyone who commands even a little bit of attention—much less the enthusiasm of millions—is instantly denounced, be they left or right, would-be saint or would-be sinner—precisely because they are able to do so. They command unapologetically in one way or another and—horror of horrors—reality appears to comply.

This puts the lie to the idea that the only power that was there was an emergent phenomenon resulting from credulity about power, and that once we all saw the “wizard” behind the curtain, we could all join the game on equal terms.

Instead, it seems to suggest that some things are more powerful, effective, and grand—whether for good or bad—than others, and this is something no-one can countenance. Because then Milton and DaVinci might actually have been the genuine article rather than charlatans, and that then means that I and my I-know-that-you-know-aw-shucks-we’re-all-losers-fighting-over-scraps-but-at-least-we’re-hip pose are in fact less great than Milton and DaVinci. That Luxembourg is less great than Soviet Russia. That Robin Thicke is less great than Wagner. And so on.

The universal equality of all things that purports to level the battlefield amongst equals is smashed, and the taken-for-granted ideological fraudulence of hierarchy claims suddenly seems less taken-for-granted.

In an age in which everyone thinks they’ve cut the giants down to size, the last thing they want to have to do is confront the possibility that the giants may not have been changed after all, and that they are indeed severely overshadowed—that not only is life not fair, but that life will never be fair, no matter how much violence we commit or how much fighting we do, because there was only one Einstein, and he wasn’t—after all—a patriarchal charlatan and little more.

— § —

The other problem, of course, that even fewer people want to think about is the idea that if the giants haven’t actually been cut down to size after all—and we allow ourselves to see what is right in front of our faces—then we have to confront the possibility that there are forces in the world more powerful than us—that are simply greater than us, and that may be diametrically opposed to our selves.

Of course, the evidence for this is literally everywhere but somehow we have not yet managed to quite see that this can’t be changed by applying a few ironically discursive accusation and shame tactics—that if ISIS is about to behead someone, saying, “I know what you’re up to and you’re nothing more than a sexist little boy who never got enough love” isn’t all that useful. Dead is dead.

(Of course, we hide our dead and fastidiously do everything that we can to avoid ever having to admit that they exist, even while they’re still above ground.)

— § —

The point of all this being:

Like just about everyone, I’ve secretly been musing about the state of our national politics and of the world some time now, and I think some of what we’re seeing stems from the theology of ironic disbelief in all greatness that emerged with postmodernism and that enables us to tell ourselves happy rationalizations about ourselves and (rather than our own lack of greatness in comparison to others) the general lack of reality underlying all greatness claims.

We hate greatness, for all the reasons outlined above.

So on the one hand, whenever we see it in anyone or anything, we immediatly refuse to believe our own eyes, and instead rail against it as a fraud. This leads to conflict, polarization, and hate.

And on the other hand, as a part of the bargain that must be in place for greatness not to exist, we refuse to believe in our own potential greatness, or to attempt any truly great things, and thus are powerless in the face of greatness.

Instead, we engage in discourse, which postmodernism told us was actually the basis of everything. It’s all just a simulation; don’t play the game, rewrite the program!

No. They were wrong. Greatness exists, materialism obtains, and some people and things are great and some others are not and others still could be but won’t because they’ve believed the lie that nobody is and that the proper first step in all things to be respectable is to disavow greatness and its pursuit entirely. Hopefully the greats (or at least not the only greats) are not the guys that want to kill you. Thing is, if you refuse to believe in greatness, and refuse to try to be great, and set about instead whining about things using so many (non-big, non-metaphysical, oh-so-ironic and lowbrow) tropes, greatnesses that want to kill you will ultimately have their way with you.

— § —

In shorter terms:

Postmodernism was wrong.

Real stuff exists. Some of it wants to kill you.

We have likely buried potential greats under piles of ironic, self-referential bullshit.

Words can also be great deeds, rather than mere ironic, self-referential bullshit. The best way right now to tell the difference is to look at the reaction to the words. If they’re virulently hated and critized in very public ways by quite a lot of people, they’re probably great—whether great for good or great for evil.

There is a difference between great deeds (including great words) and mere discourse. The difference is that the latter is an AWOL game of tic-tac-toe while your countrymen die on the battlefield.

The greats have free run right now because the plebes have been trained not to believe in greats as anything other than a figment of discourse, even as their own legs are being sawed off. Hence Trump. Hence ISIS. Hence school shooters. And so on. And the more you point this out, the more people hurl invective and explain what an asshole you are (even as their legs continue to be sawed off, and rather than standing up and doing something about it).

It’s not the god(s)/great(s) that are dead, it’s postmodernism, only people may not figure it out before they themselves are dead, leaving only the god(s)/great(s) that killed them behind.

A post all about courage, crap, goodness, badness, and the question of truth.  §

For weeks, every day, throughout the day, I have wanted to write. Blog posts. Lists. Plans. Goals.

Then, evening arrives and I am blank, utterly blank. Instead, I put the kids to bed (if the kids are here) or I consume various forms of educational media (if the kids are not here).

Now here it is Sunday morning and I am again feeling like I want to write, but also drawing a blank. This is the block I spoke of before. There are things trying to break out. From the outside, they can’t be identified. They are clearly being represeed. This is infuriating.

— § —

I am having trouble separating what matters from what must practially, in the immediate sense, be done. The latter is overwhelming and submerging the former. Here again, I almost started to write what I did today. Then, I realized that this would be a pointless list.

What things that mattered did I do today? Something got under my skin. What?

Cleaning the yard.

The yard is a disaster area. Two dogs, tons of furniture and yard stuff, not much time to tend to it. I went outside for a few minutes and at least picked up all the bits and pieces of chewed things, took some tools that the kids had pulled from the shed and returned them to the shed, etc.

It looks less like a dump but still a lot like a dump. I hate that, but I also hate that the yard takes any time at all beyond simply mowing it.

The yard is full of things. Things. Trampoline, lawn furniture, (now collapsed or fallen) garden decor, pots and plants, yard tools, toys, etc. I hate all this crap. A yard should not be full of crap. Crap requires care, or it turns into shit. This is another remnant—they are still everywhere—of marriage. I did not like or appreciate stuff in the yard, but my ex-wife loved it. Hence, a yard full of stuff. Then, divorce.

Then, there is nobody to take care of the crap, and so it falls into disrepair. Then it falls into fragments of junk. Then you add an extra dog to the one that was already here and the fragments of junk are everywhere and full of teeth marks.

Two and a half years on, this is still a major thread in my life. There is so much stuff to clean up and throw away; I am routinely overwhelmed by the volume. Sometimes it feels as though every nook and cranny is full of crap. When you are getting married, nobody ever points out that if the two of you focus on different kinds of material objects and material spaces in life, then each of you has a domain of care an maintenance that is separate from the other, and these don’t overlap, so fair warning, if you split up in the end, there will be a million parts of your life that you never look at that will be a disaster.

Forget about yard; let’s talk closets. I don’t use them. I never have. So the closets, too, are still packed with crap. I’d love to empty them out, but would I love to empty them out enough to take an entire weekend to go through them, spend the dollars to rent a u-haul, and drag all of that stuff out of here? There must be several hundred to a thousand pounds of it, at least.

No, no I don’t. Do I want someone else coming over and rifling through the closets? No, no I fucking don’t. No I fucking don’t. So there they sit, full. Someday when I finally get out of here or die, someone else will have to look into that. Meanwhile, over time things fall, get dusty, get old, it all starts to look more like dump (once again) than storage.

My life is full of crap. Physical crap. Emotional crap. And years later, making a dent in this crap load feels like an impossible task. Some people do the “disappear, run away, and start over as someone new” thing to get rid of their crap. Some people just keep the crap around until they die, and then people going through their estate wearing gloves and shedding tears say to each other many times over the course of weeks, “My God, he had so much crap.”

Does anyone ever manage to overcome the crapload and clean their lives out while still alive, and while preserving their identity, sanity, and relationships? Is this something only rich people can do, because only they can afford the expenses, time, and opportunity cost of each to get this done? There are a lot of things that are considered to be either strong or weak moral imperatives, yet only rich people can practically do. I would not be surprised if this was another.

Thing 1: My life is full of crap.

— § —

Beyond this, it all seems to be evocative of the wider sphere of things. We live in a crap world right now. A bad world. If there is one defining characteristic of the world right now, it’s not just that it’s “fallen” or something, but that it’s bad. It’s crap.

  • Trump is bad crap. Hillary was and is bad crap.
  • The cotton ceiling is bad crap.
  • The fake economy whose returns accrue to the 1% is bad crap.
  • Our confrontation with global warming, which we caused, is bad crap.
  • Conservative hypocrisy politics is bad crap.
  • Liberal identity politics is bad crap.
  • Marxism is bad crap.
  • Classical liberalism is bad crap.
  • The media is and pushes bad crap.
  • Our bridges are made of bad crap.
  • The proliferation of guns and gun violence is bad crap.
  • The need to regulate them is bad crap.
  • The idea that the problem will get better without regulation is bad crap.
  • Our electronics update cycle is and generates bad crap.
  • The apps that we use on our electronics are bad crap.
  • We eat and drink bad crap.
  • The educational system is bad crap.
  • The products that we rely on for everyday life are bad crap.
  • Feminism is bad crap.
  • Anti-feminism is bad crap.
  • Leaders foreign and domestic are bad crap.
  • The whole global culture, and all its parts, and all its material things, are bad crap.

The world is every bit as crapped up, as total shite, as my yard and my closets are right now. It needs a flood. If I were God, I would organize a flood and flood the fuck out of that thing, because that seems a lot more practicable than trying to clean it all up.

But I’m not God. I don’t even know if I believe in God. I used to be a committed atheist, but these days bothering to do or think about that seems like more bad crap. I mean, what’s the point? What, exactly? Seriously. Idealistic crap, on all sides.

I spent a lot of my life looking for truth and light and all of that, but in fact right now I’d settle for something—anything, almost—that’s simply good.

Is there anything out there, or anyone, frankly, that’s good? Just simple, old-fashioned, basic good? Not perfect, not rapturous, not glorious, none of that shit. Just good. Good enough. Better than bad. Not bad crap. Anything?

This brings me to a philosophical question that has, I think, been troubling me under the surface for a while now.

Clearly, not everything that is true is good.

But—is everything that is good necessarily true? This would imply that false things cannot be good, and that good things cannot be false. This is a big bridge for me to cross. I lack the philosophical training to do it. I read Kant and Hegel and Marcuse and Adorno and Rawls and Taylor and so on.

But even though people might say that the canon of philosophy, inasmuch as it bleeds out into other disciplines, is concerned with precisely questions like these, I can’t help but feel that it isn’t. Not really. If I were to come up with a metaphor, it would sound absurd. Something akin to “It’s like trying to enjoy a particular novel by not picking up the novel, or even having it in your possession, but instead by going to your toolbox, getting out a screwdriver and some screws, and screwing them carefully into your wall horizontally at 24-inch gaps.”

Under such conditons, the point is driven home by a question like, “So, you’ve finished screwing in all your pointless screws. Did you enjoy that novel?”

That’s how I feel about philosophy right now. And about its relationship to the question of goodness and truth.

Thing 2: The world is full of bad crap, and I’d like to find something, anything, that’s just simply good right now—and I’m uncertain about whether this means that I should also be looking for something that’s true.

— § —

Do not react to this post, if you know me, by sending me piles of scripture from your tradition, encouraging me to go to yoga or to meditation or whatever, proposing a vegan diet, or other activist bullshit. You know me better than that.

I have been around a long time in a lot of places, have known a lot of people, and have degrees in literature, cultural anthropology, and sociology (including a doctorate). I have read most of the world’s great scripture. I’ve been to hundreds of religious services in dozens of traditions. I’ve done yoga. I’ve meditated. I’ve traveled. I’ve been vegan. I’ve even been an activist of the most strident and committed sort over the years I’ve been here. I have done this crap. Do not send me even more crap.

I’m not after easy answers. This is not a consumer problem, as in “he just needs to be informed about spiritual or wellness product X.”

This is all part and parcel of a struggle. Any real struggle cannot be resolved with instances of shopping or sharing.

— § —

Final thought: One reason that I am having trouble committing myself to resolving any of this is that I sense that whatever I do next, whatever real goal I finally allow myself to conceptualize and seize as the next thing—will be very big and all-encompassing. Like my Ph.D. was.

This means several things:

  • It will probably cost me a lot (and I don’t mean money)
  • It will probably take many years, even decades
  • It is likely thus to be the last “thing” (i.e. real thing) that I ever do with my life before I die

It is hard to commit to—or even to begin to imagine—your “final thing.” It is a very different experience from being twenty and thinking about your “next thing.” In the latter circumstance, it’s easy to think about and commit yourself to twenty or thirty years, because you’ll still have the rest of your life after that to explore other things.

When you are facing the prospect of deciding on and starting down the long road that is your final thing… It is rather tougher to be decisive. It is a hard thing to have the courage to confront.

But I do think this is it. When I figure out what I will do next, it will be what I do next for the rest of my time here. Hence the questions about goodness and truth. Hence the desire to avoid bad crap.

There’s too much on the line.

— § —

It’s all in here, somewhere.

The question is, will it come out—or will I die surrounded by piles of crap that I carried stumblingly with me through years of doing nothing at all for lack of courage?

Fake news, the FIU bridge collapse, and the broken news media.  §

I have been reading about the FIU bridge collapse on professional and academic engineering forums, and it drives home just how hopeless our press is, likely because our non-STEM college graduates can’t think their way out of a cardboard box.

The press can’t even get the basic bridge type right, much less anything about the failure. This despite the fact that (for example) preliminary design documents that outline the bridge’s major components and basic construction and stress model are matters of public record, and the fact that tons of academic and professional engineers are already drawing to a consensus about the nature of the failure (and it has little to do, at least in the direct sense, with cracks).

With all of this information public and readily available via a simple Google search, why are the press completely unable to even locate and read planning documents to learn that this was not a cable-stayed bridge, but a modified truss bridge designed to support its own weight without a central tower, and that in fact the “cable stays” shown in concept drawings were purely decorative, mere thin, hollow pipes screwed into place that wouldn’t hold (and weren’t capable of holding) any weight?

Why are they unable to locate the trade and industry publications and forums in which actual engineers have outlined the stresses and stress vectors operating on the various members in minute detail? It’s already been narrowed down to what is likely a failure either in the stress tensioner, tensioner blister, or lower joint of member #11—the latter being the most likely as without the second span and other construction in place, northward forces on this joint were massive, yet the steel reinforcement to transmit load into the bottom deck was minimal based on NTSB photos, not leaving much to counteract them (until the second span was installed to abut the first span’s north end). This led to a fairly clear shear failure at the joint, as demonstrated by the entirely intact edge of the collapsed lower deck at the north end, and the puff of white at that joint (as it shears) immediately before collapse in the released videos. Any press covering this? Nope, they’re still talking about cable-stayed.

Cable-stayed, stress testing (there was no stress testing event occuring, just routine monitoring by attached sensors as other work was being carried out), cracks that everyone ignored.

I’m not even an engineer but I can follow along with most of the math, and understand the analyses that the pros are making. And I certainly can read a public document that says this was not a cable-stayed bridge in any way, shape, or form, but was merely imitating one visually. Meanwhile I can’t count how many mainstream media articles I’ve read about this disaster than digress into summaries the history of cable-stayed bridges. Oops.

Basically, this is why the “mainstream media” is dying. There’s a kernel of truth in the “fake news” meme. That kernel is the fact that—whether due to poor education, hubris, or simple laziness—the press is either unable to do or to understand the most basic and obvious research in prepping their stories—research that we’d easily expect a high school student to do for a term paper. The result is complete misinformation and lots of articles quoting tweets from people who have no science or engineering training, weren’t present at the bridge at any time, have absolutely nothing to do with the bridge, but are in fact famous—and thus their mishmash of nonsense is treated as gospel.

It’s fake news all the way down, folks, not just in politics. If you want the real info, the internet is your friend. Get real records from real government agencies, and for information requiring expertise, visit the properties where real practicing professionals are and just ask them for their input.